May 12 — I’ve spent many of my formative years being told why my life in this country has been shaped by May 13 (For the non-Malaysian reader: The build up to our national election that year, and the violence that ensued and the political policies that were set in place in order to evade a recurrence) . And tomorrow will be its 40th anniversary.
70 per cent of the country at least will not have a living memory of it, and those who do, have only the bits from their personal experiences. The rest of us have to do with what our parents tell us.
For my parents, it was grabbing my toddler brother and taking their Vespa back to the Sungai Besi camp, where they resided in. My dad was not asked to participate in the military’s role in bringing law and order back to KL, as according to him “All non-Malays were asked not to”. What that means, and if that is true, is all up who you talk to, and how they feel about the event.
No real official report has come out on the incident. Obviously there is a report, but under the veil of secrecy a country had to move forward.
So Malaysia’s race policy, and we are one of the few country’s in the world to have an explicit race policy for almost every facet of our daily lives, has been based on a series of events that most Malaysians don’t have an objective knowledge of.
Juxtapose it with America. The civil war tore the heart of the union, and in many senses underlined fundamental differences. The south was not willing to give up its past, and the present is always about looking back to that period through different lenses. However a large portion of the facts are known, even if the motives, purpose and harm never quantified.
The south attacked Fort Sumter in April 1861, and the various battles have their attrition rates on both sides. To some Abraham Lincoln is the seal of the union, or a man who ended state autonomy.
Some are facts, and some need a little interpretation, and the debate goes on.
Malaysia’s defining moment had no facts disclosed, and little to interpret, rumours to recycle and a debate on it banned.
So why are we surprised that we are such a dysfunctional nation?
A well experienced expat pointed to me last week, that he had never seen a country openly racist. I mean he was referring to all of us, not any particular race.
People here can make summary judgments on people just based on colour and background.
As an Indian, I can be a well-educated and cultured person from Sri Lankan Tamil stock, all with English education and civil service experience. Or I am the child of general workers, with an-odd way of speaking Malay, bereft of good English and looking always for things to steal.
Trust a snake more than me, they’ll say — especially if you ask exco Hamidah Osman from Umno Perak.
The diversity forced by a globalised world has allowed for more categories, but categories still. Everyone is always looking at a person to decide their worth on externals.
Making sense of May 13
What is this event then to me, or any of my countrymen?
If the argument is, murder, pillaging and violence are repugnant, the argument is well made.
But you don’t need a specific act of violence to rationalise the dangers of mob violence.
Then the idea would be about social redistribution. No one when financially oppressed is a stable member of society.
True, a man with great need for means of life, is on edge. Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean stole to feed his dying family, and lived a life to explain himself.
Unemployed thousands in KL would be more likely to grab your handbags and run, because being caught is less of an issue than going poor.
But the principle is alleviating all men from the burden of penury is synonymous with all noble intents to build a society of equals. It is not predicated on one group being needy. The needy are a group of people with only one commonality, a lack of things.
That is how you recognise them.
Single mothers in this country are needy. Many of them Malay. Giving to their husbands handy contracts will not improve the lives of the children they had for instance. And neither is it ok to give state support to the widow of a millionaire.
It is weird to say the least that generations of Malaysians have always been reminded of May 13, with absolutely no opportunity to talk about it, or exchange ideas pertaining to it with their teachers.
I am sure it is not fun, fun, fun talking about the civil rights movement in the old south, in Birmingham, where they beat blacks wholesale. Being that 12 year old white kid talking and discussing about the brutality of white policemen on their black brethren. That today’s police would be black and white. That every time a black person is killed by a police bullet, race is the theme.
No period of pain will be easy to pass, but without talking about it, how do you pass it?
Umno has an infallibility complex. Therefore it cannot talk about its past without having the precondition of having a monopoly over truth, or writing that truth.
So in some ways, this country cannot move forward with Umno at the helm.
When hate fills the hearts of men, only one voice speaks for them, the language of destruction. It takes a life of its own. It does not define society, it merely explains its frailties.
Societies do not become better because they deny their frailties but because they muster the courage to face them.
So May 13, this May 13, the 40th time we will recollect it, perhaps we need to recollect it with some honesty. That all our hands have blood on them, and the blood of a brother is unacceptable. Above that we have greater things binding us than dividing us, and that talking about our common pain is not a blame game.
Then my country will away walk from the memory of violence, and a cleansing begins.